A few years back, I asked a friend of mine why he preferred to stick with World of WarCraft to the exclusion of any other games.
"It gives me everything I need, and it saves me money on other games," he told me.
The answer struck me as strange at the time. There are so many great games coming out every year that it feels like a shame to miss out on them. But lately, I've been able to see the case for the "endless game" — competitive multiplayer games, strategy games, and other types of games that don't have a defined beginning, middle, and end.
I've enjoyed such games for many years now, but always with a vague sense of guilt. In investing so much time in Civilization or FIFA, I've felt like I've been neglecting other experiences, leaving my backlog to grow unto the ending of the world. That sense of guilt has been compounded by my career choice, which demands that I keep pace with the latest and greatest in the gaming industry (even if sometimes I would rather just play Chrono Trigger again... or Star Trek: Judgment Rites).
Such time sink games have taken over my life at various points, leaving me frustrated over what I've felt like was wasted time. But I'm over that now. With Heroes of the Storm occupying so much of my time these days, I'm ready to embrace the sink.
This realization has really sunk in as I've tried valiantly to grapple with Witcher 3 — a truly massive open-world RPG that deserves all of the plaudits that it's been getting.
Trust me, I really want to play more, but I keep finding myself up until 1am playing Heroes of the Storm instead. So I'm forced to ask myself, "Why can't I get the motivation to play this game? It's attractive and fun! And everyone loves it!"
Well, there's the fact that it's more action-oriented than systems-oriented. One reason that I enjoy sports sims and RPGs so much is that I love grappling with complex systems. I find pure action less appealing.
But more than that, I'm wary of the commitment. Somewhere in my mind, I feel like I'm commiting not to an hour or so of riding around the North Kingdoms, but to a 60 hour story. It's the same reason that I'm struggling to get the motivation to pick up Breaking Bad and other shows that I'm assured I must watch. For whatever reason, I just can't break it down into manageable bites in my head. All I can see is the full meal.
Heroes of the Storm, on the other hand, constitutes no commitment at all... or at least that's how my brain sees it. A round of Heroes of the Storm takes maybe 20 minutes to complete and packs in a host of interesting systems, making it a double-shot of everything I love about RPGs.
So my evenings have been increasingly taken up by games that can theoretically go on forever, with little to nothing in the way of story or structured campaigns. And I find I like it that way.
Looking back, most of my best gaming memories stem from my time with such games. I've written about my soccer adventures and my on-again off-again love affair with Pokémon, which is secretly an MMORPG with a really long tutorial.
Even the painful memories can be sweet in their own way. Just last night, I came within a drive of coming back from a 24-7 deficit in the Super Bowl, only for my safety to drop a surefire pick and my opponent to complete a third-down conversion. He kneeled it out and I watched the confetti fall for the Broncos. But tough as it was, I'll remember that near comeback for a long time. In a way, I'm writing my own story.
That's the great thing about games, when you think about it. In pretty much every other creative medium, the creator has control over the final product, and the audience is there to consume it. With games, though, the creators provide the canvass, and the players are free to fill in whatever details they like.
For me, most of those memories are bound up in community interaction, competition, and the quest to learn the game and improve. I see out the games worth learning — usually the ones with the most interesting component parts — and devour them. For other people, there's the allure of a good single-player strategy game that can be played against the computer. In any case, the only "end" is when I'm fully satisfied that I've derived everything I want from the experience.
Sometimes I find myself diving into these games just because I want to relax. It may be that I've been ruined by years of reviewing games, but when I see something with a defined beginning, middle, and end, I can't help getting stressed out. I feel the pressure to play through to the end. I'm relieved when it's finished.
There are still times when I enjoy every second of a story-driven game, of course. I was genuinely sad when I finished up Persona 4: Golden, because I felt like I really was saying goodbye to my friends in Inaba (one reason I've been so happy to get into Persona Q). More recently, Shovel Knight has been an utter delight. And of course, I'm still plugging through Super Robot Wars Z3.
Left to my own devices, though, I increasingly find myself firing up a game of Civilization V or Elite: Dangerous or FIFA or Monster Hunter. I find them infinitely less stressful.
It's been interesting making this realization. I know a lot of people who feel completely the opposite, honestly. They'd rather have a defined experience that they can work their way through and finish. For a long time, I was the same way. Before I got into the games press, I would methodically plug my way through one game at a time, putting it aside when I was finished and moving on to the next one.
There's a part of me that still craves the satisfaction of seeing the credits roll in a good, long RPG, which is why I relish reviewing them. Forced to really buckle down and finish a game, I become much more focused, meaning that I'm less likely to wander off and play some MOBA or sports sim. It makes me feel less guilty about my backlog (even now Bloodborne is taunting me).
But more and more, I find that I don't really care about structured setpieces and story arcs. Those elements have changed very little in the past decade or so, and I find that they've long since ceased to be novel. Instead, I find that I care about a game's nuts and bolts. I'm intrigued by the systems that hold it together; and when I'm given power over those systems, so much the better. Even now I can still spend hours obsessing over fusing the perfect demon in Shin Megami Tensei.
Knowing what I know now about my gaming tastes, I find it's easier to content myself with games that can't easily be finished, at least in the traditional sense. I'm happy to embrace them, unravel their secrets, and sharpen my own understanding of complex systems, which are so critical to understanding the medium I've built my career around.
Finally, I find that I can relax and enjoy some video games.